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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Fantasy · #1952343
A peasant fights to save his wife from becoming a living sacrifice to the Old Gods.





L. D. Dailey


123 Whitsons Run


Stafford, VA 22554


Email: duggadugga@writing.com




Words: 7511




















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By


L. D. Dailey



A New Covenant


The young squire writhed against soft cushions
while struggling to comprehend Uslav's Disparities of Economic
Stability,
written in the High Chant of ancient times before the
empire united the Sunset Isle's under one dynasty. Always
uncomfortable in his benefactor's opulent sitting room, Khrys Gurav
fought the betrayal of husky shoulders reclining into velvet cushions
that melted tension away. Eyes glanced up from the monstrous tome to
meet the mercury eyes of his mentor relaxing in a twin chair. "Have
you discovered the answer to my question already, son?"


Already? His eyes assessed a cloudless
night of shimmering stars as a soft breeze parted silk curtains.
These private lessons never spanned so late, and never with so many
questions that displayed his ignorance. Khrys glanced at the words
and tried to mask the shame from his lord, until an uncomfortable
silence beckoned him to look up again into deep-set, pitiless eyes as
his lord's baritone voice tumbled onward like a rockslide on a steep
decline, "You cannot discern the answer?" His master leaned
forward, resting an arrogant chin on scarred hands as his dry mouth
frowned in disappointment, "No. You have an answer, but lack the
confidence to speak." The master stood and smoothed his samite
doublet dyed in cerise so dark it seemed black. "Out with it, son,"
he commanded in that implacable tone.


Khrys inhaled a nervous breath. "Lord- Master
Vinograd, I understand the need to raise funds to build a road, but
why continue to tax people at the higher rate after the road is done?
Especially if you charge people to use the roads at every crossing
and hostel along the Imperial Highway." Khrys lowered the book on a
circular table of deep mahogany and placed calloused hands in his
lap.


Lord Vinograd shook an aged head as long legs
closed the gap between them. Burned knuckles rapped Khrys on the
head. The squire shielded his scalp, digging through ebony hair to
massage the pain while marveling at how a minor blow could hurt so
much- and draw blood, as he pulled slimy fingers away to study red
fingertips.


Unmovable, Lord Vinograd rumbled on, "You must
stop thinking like a peasant, son. A farmer will look to his own crop
without a care for his neighbors. Fishermen and hunters will hunt
without considering next cycle's supply. Merchants will use every
trick at their disposal to rob the Empire of its tax. And yet all
these people will demand that their lords protect them when drought
and famine and banditry threaten. The empire provides security, and
security costs money."


Khrys nodded with thoughts at the edge of
discernment. It almost made sense- in a way- almost. Lord Vinograd
turned toward his wine cabinet, but not before Khrys glimpsed the
birth of a miniscule smile. Miraculous.


A timid knock interrupted his musings, and the
guest entered unannounced, uninvited. Khrys frowned at the person he
least wanted to see. The Black Eunuch, Uthmaa N Yamin, chief advisor
to the emperor and Keeper of the Harem, closed the door with a
delicate hand and smiled at Lord Vinograd with pursed lips that
appeared ready to kiss. "Borislav, may we speak for a moment?"


Dreadknight Borislav Vinograd, Dread Lord of the
Nameless One, chief advisor to the emperor, and Keeper of Secrets
regarded his colleague with an expressionless visage that made his
fleshless face appear skeletal, "You have invited yourself into my
chambers without announcement, Halfman. If I say 'no,' will you
leave?"


Khrys respectfully rose, bowed to both High Lords,
and excused himself, not wanting to become the subject of another
debate on peasants who aim too high above their station.


"Stay," Borislav commanded with furrowed brow.





The charcoal skinned bureaucrat consented with a
nod before occupying Lord Vinograd's chair with his gangly form. "I
agree. Your- experiment might gain knowledge on culture and ceremony.
If there is wine, I'd have some. Pour for me, boy." Borislav nodded
to Khrys before sitting across from the eunuch. Uthmaa continued,
ignoring the mounting tension. "Do you still plan on bringing your
pet to court? How long has it been since you found him dying by the
river, five years?"


Khrys ignored the halfman's insults while studying
the extensive wine collection with vintages from across the breath of
the southern isle's, trying to suppress memories of an old
nightmare. A winter pirate raid, the local lord's cowardice as he
ordered guards to defend the keep but not the villagers, a father
impaled with a fishing spear, a young sister taken for a sea-wife,
the elder raped and left for dead, a brother lost, a mother's
suicidal drowning, the arrow through his gut- the agony- wishing for
death- the thunder of horse hooves as the Dreadknight's came- the
emptiness after they enacted terrible justice against lord and
raiders...
No, best to study the wine. He wiped eyes, tired from
the strain of reading. Yes- tears from overuse, not pain. He decided
to use the ruby wine already open that his master favored, and poured
it into a pair of gem-encrusted goblets.





"I invite you to my witness the commemoration of
the Jetov Accords with me, Borislav," the Black Eunuch spoke with
his sugary voice. "Perfunctionary Bohl has extended an invitation
at his manor. It has a perfect view of the square. I've read that the
ceremony requires a cancelling of old debts and appeasement of those
one has offended. You and I may disagree, but our mission is the
same." Uthmaa smiled, accentuating the rouge on puffy cheeks. "We
can return to our old ways the day after." Khrys served the wine,
but did not enjoy the eunuch's muddy eye disdainfully studying him,
"bring your squire as well. It will do his education good to see a
once a century celebration."


Vinograd swallowed a long pull from his glass then
studied the contents as if untold secrets lay within. "A wicked
business, that. I never thought I'd live to see another." The Dread
Lord rose and paced, his eight spans dominating the wide sitting room
through he stood a mere hand taller than Khrys.


Khrys stood by the empty chair in bewilderment,
One hundred cycles? And he's seen at least one? How old are you,
my Lord?


Both councilors turned toward him. Realization
dawned that Khrys spoke his thoughts. The Black Eunuch lowered his
goblet without taking a sip. "Dreadknights live a very long time,
boy. He hasn't told you what it truly takes to become one has he?"
Yamin's oily smile revealed perfect teeth. "I pity you, boy. Better
if you had died in that backwater swamp than come here."


Anger, blazing like the sun, blinded the squire.
How dare he mock the dead? Curse him. Bakarne was only eight when
they took her!


Strong fingers covered in burn marks gripped his
shoulder. Borislav leaned to whisper, "Careful, son," he snatched
the wine bottle clenched between Khrys' hairy fingers. Cracks lined
the bottle, and Khrys apologized for ruining a prized vintage as he
studied stained fingertips. He tried to lick them clean. The eunuch
inhaled and leaped from his chair. His lord stopped him with a firm
grip, wordlessly cleaning each finger with a black handkerchief while
studying his palms.


The Black Eunuch regained his composure with a
smile of false commiseration. "Careful, Squire Gurav, we don't need
to upset the High Priestess with your death before the sacrifice."


The way he spoke worried Khrys, as if he knew
things he should not. "My lord, the High Priestess of Marrinae has
no reason to pay attention to the likes of me, and a bottle of wine
will not harm- wait- sacrifice!"


Uthmaa nodded, unconcerned as chocolate eyes
devoured him. "The Jetov Accords celebrates peace between
the Uliusnela Empire and the Old Gods by commemorating the sacrifice
of the warrior goddess Marrinae with a- reenactment."


The history lesson confused Khrys, but he
understood the last. They're going to kill her! "My lords,"
the stuttered words felt hollow, but courtesies must be observed. "If
you would excuse me." He fled without waiting for permission.


Squire Khrys Gurav's muscular legs hurried
through the curved hallways and winding stairs of the Nameless Tower,
home of the emperor's Dreadknights, grateful for the eerie solitude
the Dreadknights enjoyed that left the corridors empty save lonely
servants cleaning the keep. He ignored the constricting effect of
long mirrors, sinister candlelight, and peculiar angles cut into the
wall that played tricks on the eyes. All thoughts focused on the
noblewoman who loved him- the cursed peasant without family or home.
Khrys dashed through the open portcullis and into the perpendicular
streets of the Aegon Citadel, leather boots clacking atop the paved
thoroughfare. A midnight breeze rippled through his ivory tunic and
evergreen hosen as he adjusted the short sword buckled to his hip
before trekking across the boulevard toward the District of the Gods,
toward the Temple of Marrinae. He paused as thoughts dwelt on the
temple where death awaited any man invading the sanctuary of the
virgins devoted to the Goddess Marrinae. Despair settled into weary
limbs. Calloused hands rested against a home of smooth bricks as he
paused to think.


A pair of guardsmen in leather jerkins rushed by,
one casting a suspicious glare at Khrys before turning down a tight
alley. Torchlight danced along distant buildings, coalescing into
more sentries frantically searching down every passageway and
backstreet for something. The squire ignored them, wrapped in his own
troubles, but found it prudent to flee down a side street littered
with broken liquor bottles and reeking of rotting garbage. He stifled
a scream as a shifting mound of trash covered with a moth-riddled
blanket frightened him. He kicked the pile and unsheathed his sword
as the heap grunted. Agitation suppressed fear as he put away the
blade, "Probably homeless."


"Khrys?" a sweet voice queried from under the
sheet. Elegant, perfect hands lifted the camouflage, exposing a moon
shaped face framed with glistening silver hair. Amber eyes widened in
surprise, "It is you!" Full lips grinned as the small maiden
discarded her cloak and rose to embrace the shocked squire. "Come,"
loving arms pulled him into a cramped opening between two buildings.
"I'm surprised that they called the Dreadknights into the search.
I assumed that the Watch would keep this secret to hide their shame."
Diminutive breasts concealed beneath the somber gowns of her order
heaved in a depressed sigh. "How much time do I have before they
catch me? I won't trouble you to hide me from the Dreadknights. I-
what is wrong?" Delicate fingers caressed his face as she gazed up
into his eyes. "I know I promised you that I wouldn't sneak out
anymore. This time, I walked right out the front door," her smile
curled mischievously, "after I set fire to a set of tapestries."
The Mothers aren't very bright-"


Khrys lost the strength to admonish her rebellious
nature, noting that she would simply ignore it with a smile. "Shut
up, Celine." Thick arms, without the usual fear of touching her,
lifted Celine in a rough embrace. He breathed in the scent of her,
ignoring the stench of vomit and filth as the perfume of holly
flowers from his childhood filled him.


Celine hugged him just as fiercely. "What
happened, my love?"


"When is the ceremony?"


Celine's eyes shimmered. "You know about that?
They say it's a High Priestess' crowning glory, reenacting
Marrinae's-"


With great reluctance, Khrys set her down, the
night's business too important for stolen comforts in a dingy
alley. A way to make her see the danger as serious and not some
romantic adventure escaped him. Only the truth came to his lips.
"There're going to kill you, Celine."


"What? No," thick brows arched in
astonishment, followed by a doubting smirk. "Marrinae died in her
fight, sacrificing herself by taking the enemy with her." Elegant
hands massaged the tension in his arms. "We celebrate her sacrifice
by replaying those events, so the people won't forget."


Khrys disagreed with a headshake and told her the
events of an hour ago. "Dread Lord Vinograd says he saw the last
ceremony. He didn't seem pleased."


"He saw the last-" Celine muted a
harmonious laugh. "That was a hundred cycles ago."


Khrys nodded, eyes never leaving hers.


"That's- impossible," Celine's eyebrows
furrowed in concentration. Khrys remained patient, allowing her to
work through the answer at her own pace. Intercession, regardless of
intent or logic, always led to further denial with the petite woman
who cradled his heart.


A resolved nod dimpled cheeks still plump with
baby fat. "I believe you. By the goddess, I believe you." A
clatter accompanied by colorful language interrupted her. Celine
pulled them further into the cramped side street while casting
furtive glances at the intersection. "Father won't help." She
frowned. "I already embarrass him too much. He won't let me leave
the temple." She clenched Khrys' hands and gazed up into his
eyes.


The squire backed away, wary, recognizing that
troublesome stare, "What is it this time?"


"Priestesses vow never to wed, bed a man, or
birth children, just as Marrinae lived. If I were to," blushing
cheeks hinted at embarrassment, "consummate our union-"





#





Oathbreaker


Time blurred as the priestess guided Khrys around
roaming guards, stumbling drunks, and scantily clad whores, laughing
at the adventure. Khrys suppressed jealousy at her cavalier attitude
as a concoction of fears churned his stomach. Time flowed,
unmemorable and Khrys marveled at his current predicament, kneeling
before the Alter of the Three, hands entwined with Celine's as a
drunk Shaman of Haldaorf muttered an incomprehensible prayer through
a long, wine-soaked beard behind them. With his chant complete,
Celine began the ritual exchanging of vows, guiltlessly beseeching
the idol of Marrinae for her blessing. Candlelight danced across the
impassive knight's face. Her visage seemed displeased with head
bent toward a grounded sword her palms rested on.


Supplication complete, Celine's lithe figure
turned toward Khrys and the squire's throat constricted in
nervousness. Which god should he pray too? Most beseeched the
Warrior, a barbarian from the northern isle's shouting defiance to
the heavens with clenched fists and a gargantuan broadsword sheathed
on his back. However, his gaze drifted to the Nameless One, the
hooded conqueror famed for defeating both heroes and vilified for the
dishonorable tactics employed in those victories. His feet shuffled
toward The Nameless One, god of his master. The priest groaned in
disapproval from behind, but his peripheral spied a confident smile
and approving nod from Celine, melting his apprehension as his step
grew surer. "Nameless One," he whispered, "Help me protect her.
I don't know how this is done, but I love her."


A light appeared, haloing the Nameless One.
Almost, he could make out distinguishing features under that cowl.
"There she is," someone barked from behind, "Alert Sir Bohl."
Khrys spun and confronted a trio of guards armed with torches, faces
obscured by leather barbutes. The middle sentry bowed toward the holy
man, "Pardon's servant of Haldaorf. Perfunctionary Cedric Bohl
ordered the guard to find his tricksome little girl and bring her
back to the temple."


The guardsman stepped forward. Anger spurred
Khrys' feet forward. Shocked at his own defiance, he unsheathed his
sword. "You will not touch my wife." Khrys apologized silently to
Lord Vinograd for this disobedience, as he imagined the great man's
disappointment. Duty and love. In the stories, the two always
coexisted. Khrys sighed with regret. If only life where a story.


"Wife?" a voice queried from the entrance. A
short aristocrat stepped into the temple with azure boots lined with
golden scrollwork. Matching hose and doublet completed the ensemble
as Perfunctionary Cedric Bohl entered the temple. "I think not.
Stand aside, boy- Ah," recognition widened his chestnut eyes. "The
peasant dung whose defiance attracted my disgraceful heir's
notice." He spoke as a man speaking to a tree, emotionless and
monotone, as more guards flanked him. "You do realize how flighty
she is. Irresponsible. Lazy! She'll play with you and toss you
aside when you begin to bore her." He seemed to speak of
unimportant things while disparaging his own blood. The night is dark
and cold. It may rain tonight. My daughter is a failure.


Celine whimpered and seized Khrys' back for
support, shaking her head in denial. Khrys hunted for words and found
none. The kettle-bellied spiritualist saved him with a meaty finger
wagging at the intruders, his wine-soaked beard bristling with
indignation, "They spoke the words in this holy house! Honor their
vows or the gods will destroy you."


"Holy?" Cedric gaged the conical temple with
darkened recesses where candlelight ceased, the crude pews facing a
raised altar adorned with axe, sword, shield and helmet. "I own
pigs in the east that shit in comelier places than this tavern. Tell
me, holy man. Did you know that you just married the High Priestess
of Marrinae to a homeless fisherman? No? I thought not. I assume I'll
have your discretion in this manner? Ah, good." Cedric's perfect
bow mocked the deflated priest. "You are as wise as you are holy."


Khrys wracked his brain for an escape from this
trap. Fighting six against one may work in the stories, but this was
real. He might defeat one, but death lay at the end. Surrendering
appeared the least appealing option, as they would force her to
return, to die. The squire settled on diplomacy and sheathed his
weapon. "The ceremony will kill her, my lord. The Old Gods-"


"Yes, yes. Superstitious, down country nonsense.
The Halfman was right- about you and her. I will pay dearly for this
night." Cedric retreated in disgust. "Take her. Kill the boy if
he resists."


Five men flanked the guard who stepped forward
earlier, forming a tightening semi-circle as they surrounded the
newlyweds. Khrys drew steel as Celine prayed behind him. The noose
tightened. The couple retreated to the dais. The sentries closed in.
The priestess' prayer reached a crescendo as Khrys' shoulders
warmed from a strange heat. "She is still with me, husband. Truly
our union is blessed. Close your eyes." Men screamed. Heat radiated
around the squire and disappeared in an instant. "Now, Khrys!"


The squire opened his eyes and charged the
guardsmen. He sliced open the throat of a blinded watchman whose
flabby physique strained the bonds of his jerkin and moved to
dispatch a wiry youth on his knees. Two guardsmen swung blindly at
one another, scoring glancing blows. Khrys gutted them both and six
became two. Maybe this is like the stories. Drunk off victory,
he assaulted the last of them, scoring a glancing blow across the
armored chest of a hulking brute as a lithe soldier regained his
vision and darted away to flank his partner. "Run, Celine." But
where? Who would protect a renegade priestess and commoner? "To the
Nameless Tower." Would his lord defend them? Doubtful, but where
else could he turn? Celine fled and Khrys marveled. He was married.
Married!


The guards disengaged and gave chase. "No!"
Khrys raced after them. "Cowards. Fight me!" He departed the
church. Something cold and hard stuck his face, knocking him to the
ground. He struggled to his feet, but the crippling pain sapped his
strength.


"Stay down, son," a familiar voice, pitiless
as the mountains, ordered from behind, "I don't want to hurt
you."


"Celine." The words felt clumsy in his mouth.
Something was broken. No matter, he would find her. Stubbornness
forced him to his knees, but the scene deflated his strength. The
Black Eunuch stood in the distance, manicured fingers gripping his
wife's arm. Dozens of guards fringed the gathering. He found
Celine's eyes, and despaired at the hopeless tears raining down her
perfect face. Her palm cupped a reddened check. Who struck her?


Anger stoked a fire from within. Gasps escaped
from the gathering as he wobbled to his feet, sword at the ready.
"I'll kill you all." The words sounded undecipherable to his
ears, but by the sound of drawn steel throughout the gathering, he
knew that the men understood the intent. A soft, rational voice
within him whispered warnings to yield. Only death awaits you,
here.
Khrys ignored the murmurs and raised his weapon high.


Footfalls soft as the night encroached from
behind. With a mighty shout, the squire faced his first opponent, and
froze as Lord Vinograd approached, "I told you to stay down, son."
He backhanded Khrys across his injured jaw. The agony buckled his
knees as he crumpled to the ground.


"Treason," the velvet voice of the Black
Eunuch accused.


"Not treason, Halfman," the mountain rumbled.


"Take him and throw him in the dungeon."


"I will deal with the boy."


"I warned him, better if he had died."


Khrys lost the rest as darkness enveloped him.





#








Accursed Anointing


Khrys awoke from dreamless sleep. A rough bed of
woven stones left cramps along his left side. Groggy eyes opened to
an autumn sunset dancing atop the distant coastline as a lazy breeze
stirred silk drapes. Realization widened his eyes. Curtains?
Weary fingers traced a mosaic of onyx and citrine sewn into an
eclipse. Throbbing pricked his jaw. His hand found a crude bandage
fastened atop the wound.


"Leave it be," the familiar voice of Lord
Vinograd instructed from afar. "The poultice will heal the
fractures."


Khrys rolled onto his stomach, too weak to rise,
despair a bleak weight on his back. Peripherals spied his master
fumbling within the wine cabinet. His dry mouth sighed, a sickening
mixture of relief and shame. His lord saved him from the dungeons,
yet a part of him preferred imprisonment to witnessing the
disappointment from failing the one who saved his life.


Celine. Gods help him, he still wanted to
save her, despite everything. He needed help now, but possessed no
right to ask it of one he owed everything. I owe him my life. My
life! No, I cannot ask. I'm alone.
Nightmares of Celine
murdered by the eunuch beneath a palpable darkness waiting to feast
on her bloody corpse screamed in his mind. I have to rescue her.
Necessity battled hopelessness. What good were wishes without plans?
The stories were never this hard. I must request aid, in spite of
my shame.
Resolve strengthened dead limbs as Khrys rose to his
knees.


Leather boots tread precise steps atop polished
marble as Khrys' master approached, wearing a dark, silk mantle. He
took residence in a cushioned seat. Disfigured hands placed a pair of
wineglasses filled with a murky vintage on the table. Foreign eyes
considered him. "What am I to do with you, my little fool?"
Vinograd's words, emotionless, yet laced with hidden meaning, spoke
to Khrys' soul. The Dread Lord raised one of the glasses and
sipped. "So, you wanted to save this girl, sworn to the warrior
goddess, from honoring her oath?" He sipped, pink tongue cleaning
damp lips. "You save her, by breaking the law." He grimaced,
strong fingers tapping the glass. "You save her, by forcing her to
marry a man with no name, no property, no coin." Deep-set eyes,
devoid of emotion, stared down at him. "Yet you expect this
oathbreaker to honor her vow to you? Curious."


Khrys nodded in humiliation, feeling insignificant
before Borislav's piecing gaze. He imagined a giant examining a
frog- a deformed frog with a compress strapped to his jaw- and forced
fatigued limbs to work. His thighs screamed in revolt, but the squire
refused to face judgment on his knees. I do not fear death.


Borislav's arrogant mouth curved in the barest
semblance of approval. "You want to save a life, to live honorably,
to be strong in the face of adversity?"


"Yes," Khrys croaked before clearing his
throat, "Yes. I- want- to save a life. I accept my fate, but I want
to ask for your-"


A raised hand forestalled him as Borislav's aged
head shook in disagreement. "A Dreadknight endures whatever is
necessary to accomplish the mission."


"But I'm not a Dreadknight, master." Eyes
lowered to study the floor. "I'm not even a good squire."


"And yet you prayed to the Nameless One." The
Dread Lord eased the second glass toward the squire.


Khrys recalled that impulsive decision with
confusion. What does that have to- and how did he know! Khrys
stared at the drink with fear as a shiver tingled along his spine.
Eyes rose to meet Borislav's gaze, pitiless, detached. You want
to be strong in the face of adversity...
His master's words
took on new meaning, not admonishment, but advisement. Unsteady hands
reached for the glass.


Borislav raced to his feet. "And so begins the
covenant." Khrys waited for more, some knightly oath, perhaps a
prayer. When none came, he sipped. "Do not spill a drop," his
master warned, "drink it all."


The first sip tasted of ashes and death, leaving a
fetid aftertaste as it burned his throat, chest, and belly.
Disgusted, he set the glass down and consumed deep breaths to prepare
for another swallow. He squinted as a dull throb beat a melody behind
his eyes, distorting his vision. Muscles spasms raced down his back
and legs, crippling, debilitating. Then true pain assaulted him,
buckling his knees as fire boiled his blood. He tried to scream, but
toxins squeezed the air from his lungs.


A blurred shadow watched, unaffected. "Your
first lesson. Pain." The voice echoed from a distance even though
Khrys' mind recalled that his master stood nearby. Fire clenched
his bowels, shredding memory as the voice continued. "You asked for
help. But what you truly wished for was power, strength. The Nameless
One knows this and will grant you this boon. For a price." Darkness
invaded the fringes of his vision. The pain so excruciating that his
body sought death as a release. "But the transaction remains
incomplete."


"I," tears burned his flesh, "hurt."


"You must bathe in it, befriend it, master it.
Knowledge is power. Pain is the cost. Now drink."


"No."


"Then die." The shadowed form glided away.
"And the oathbreaker will die as well."


"Nooooooo!" Khrys flailed for the glass. He
clasped the goblet and drowned the disgusting brew in a single gulp.
The pains from before seemed sweet as new tortures coursed through
his body. His heart pulsed near to bursting. Hot irons pierced his
brain. Fire crawled beneath his skin. Agony. Despair. Misery. He felt
them all and knew that the Nameless One experienced all this and more
as the darkness pulled him under.


Conversation intruded upon dark dreams. Khrys
awakened to a new world, brighter, crisper. Dust motes and bits of
coral from the coast drifted with sunshine gushing through windows as
the scents of the sea filled his nostrils. A pair of larks sang and
played passed his view. Yet, behind the beauty, he sensed the death.
Coral, once living, now floated through the air, dead. The fowl
lived, but each breath pulled them closer to doom.


Rise, little brother. The voice of Dread
Lord Borislav Vinograd invaded his thoughts as he spoke behind him,
"We will attend the ceremony." Khrys clawed to his feet.


"He doesn't look well, I fear," a voice
simpered. Khrys stood and faced the Black Eunuch considering him,
plump hand massaging an ebony cheek.


"We are well," Khrys masked confusion at the
admission. We?


You are one of us, little brother, an
unknown invader spoke in his mind. No. He knew him, though they never
met. Gyuri Collias, a baker's son from a minor village in the
southeast who survived a cruel famine when the Dreadknights came to
restore order.


We sense your loneliness. Hazm Hatem,
distant cousin of Uthmaa N Yamin and hero from the Isle of the Dead
growled.


Khrys felt Uthmaa's eyes lingering on him and
controlled his awe as the Black Eunuch turned to depart. "I hope
you wash and dress him. Today is a big day for the empire."


As he left, Khrys studied the pale tunic and olive
hosen he wore yesterday, now stained with grime and sweat and blood.
Memory flooded his consciousness as fingers inspected his broken jaw.
The pain lingered, but the wound-


"You heal faster than normal now," Borislav
explained as he summoned a servant, "a uniform for Dreadknight
Gurav." The Dread Lord sipped from a chalice. "This is a boon for
the pain you will always carry. Now bathe, you need it.


Khrys felt it as time flowed unending, an intense
throbbing that never ended, power coursing through muscles,
corruption swimming in his blood, life and death. Knowledge of
ancient times, before the empire, before the Dreadknights, seared his
mind with images as he washed. The Endless Night, famine, war,
plagues, curses, betrayals, humanity annihilated to the brink of
extinction. He saw, no became, the Nameless One, the Great Betrayer,
the Peacemaker, Dreadbane, Keeper of the Covenant, the first Emperor.


He exited the wide tub and dried. A comely
adolescent approached and began to dress him. An admonishment died on
his lips. Through his new understanding, he sensed pride in the boy's
work, and a rebuke only served to shame him. Therefore, he allowed
the servant to clean him and dress him in the black robes of his
profession. "Master." He spoke with his normal voice, choosing
against abuse the other form of communication. "I see the
importance of the ceremony. However, you know my feelings. Will you
help me find another path?"


Borislav responded with a distracted head shake
while donning midnight armor crafted from rare Ogestralt with
the help of a female squire. "Things have changed since your
initiation, little brother. We march not to a celebration, but to a
war."


"What!" It was the worst of his fears. No help
for his love, and his duties threatened his attendance. Foreign
thoughts exposed the fickleness, the insipidness of love. Such
emotions never helps a Dreadknight, it only causes pain, not of the
body, but the soul. Khrys obliterated the images with his fury,
choosing to deny the truth of them. True love needs no
reciprocation.
I do this of my own free will.


Rather than rebuke his disobedience, Borislav
hinted at a smile. "I told them you were strong." The shadow
smile faded in disappointment, "but I see knowledge has not
sharpened your intellect. Did you not hear the Halfman? The ceremony
is today. Your duty begins today. Now kneel." He stormed toward
Khrys with a greatsword sheathed in supple leather adorned with
bloody garnets in his hands. "The emperor is the light." He
unsheathed a mighty two-handed blade of obsidian that drank the light
as Khrys knelt. "With every light, there is shadow." He touched
Khrys' right shoulder with the heavy blade. His eyes trapping
Khrys' own like a fly within the spider's lair. "We are the
shadow, the sinners, the committers of atrocities, the knives in the
dark." He blessed Khrys' left shoulder with the sword. "We are
the shades that protect the light from the encroaching darkness."
Borislav grounded the blade, reminding Khrys of the statue of
Marrinae, "rise and begin your service, Dreadknight Khrys Gurav."


Dazed by the abruptness of this simple knighting,
Dreadknight Gurav lumbered to his feet. His commander gave him no
respite. "You spent three days and four nights in your struggle.
The situation has changed." Borislav droned on as if he spoke a
normal occurrence. "Show me the power of knowledge, little brother.
What do you know of the Jetov Accords?"


The answer came in an instant, as if he lived the
moment. "Bel-"


"Never speak His name, though it is a part of
you now."


"Very well. The Nameless One sought power
against the Dread. Marrinae sought to stop him. They fought
before a magical seal- a gate. He defeated her and broke the seal.
Monstrosities stormed out and fought for him, but they required a
price, as humanity imprisoned them in the first place. Marrinae
became that price. Jetov- he was a squire- I think, keeping the
Nameless One's mount from running away when the seal broke."


Khrys' shocked eyes widened as Borislav
chuckled. "He was a thief trying to steal the horses, so afraid of
the beasts that stormed from the seal that his feet couldn't move."
The Dread Lord laughed. "You learn quickly, but not well enough.
Marrinae sacrificed herself when the Old Gods demanded blood. She
loved the world as much as our Master, but refused to stain her
precious honor to save the world." Borislav, disgusted, spat on the
marble floor. "The Old Gods fed on her honor, her love for the
people, and were satisfied. There you have it. This day is not a
commemoration, but an agreed upon payment for continued service."


He pointed a gauntleted finger at the new
Dreadknight. "It is time for you to do what is necessary over what
your heart thinks is right. We have an appointed sacrifice, a
priestess anointed in the essence of Marrinae. However, the
oathbreaker lacks honor and she does not love the people. Her sisters
gorge themselves on jealously because she continues to be esteemed
though she cast the blessing aside. They spread falsehoods among the
populace, styling your precious wife as a whore who used her father's
influence to gain her position.


"Your woman does not go to her death honorably.
The people, in turn, do not love her for her sacrifice. If the Old
Gods do not accept our tribute, blood will flow. Allies of the light
will kill one another as the silent darkness waits. Another Endless
Night will engulf the survivors, with no Nameless One, no Marrinae
and her Hundred Knights, no Haldaorf and his Barbarian Horde. No
heroes will come to save a world not worth saving."


Every word became a miasma of hate and fear and
self-loathing churning Khrys' insides. A disaster brewed within the
empire. Borislav did not need to continue, but the pitiless mountain
rumbled onward. "You will convince your wife to find her honor. She
must die for the empire to live. She must die with love in her heart,
or the world will burn."





#











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Armored from the neck down in Ogestralt,
Dreadknight Khrys Gurav marched through viperous crowds screaming for
death as his new brothers witnessed from the shadowed fringes of the
mob, in alleys and dark alcoves. Survivor of the Black Marsh Pirates,
the chorus of Dreadknights sang in his mind as nervous legs ascended
a wooden platform toward agonizing screams and sobs. He recognized
the source of the crying, Apprentice of the Dread Lord but the song
drowned out all. Little Brother.





As he stepped on the platform, the wails ceased.
Tears streamed from his wife's golden eyes, now rimmed with dark
circles and irritated. Leather armored guards chained her wrists and
ankles to an eyebolt sized to hold a wild boar. Did they think her an
animal? Ivory robed priestesses supervised the operation with grim
faces. He approached, a sister ordered the guards to arrest him, but
the guards fled before the sight of his midnight mail with small
spikes protruding from pauldrons to rebrances.





A sister, tall as a man with russet braids tied in
two loops, barred his path as pale fists rested on slender hips.
"This is not your place, Dreadkni-"





Without hesitation, Khrys interrupted her with a
gauntleted backhand. The sister flew from the stage to the crowd
below. A pair of Marrinae worshippers moved to stand in her place. He
unsheathed a sinister, obsidian greatsword. The duo stared at each
other for a moment before fleeing his presence.





Free from distraction, he hesitated before the
diminutive woman garbed in an opaque gown barely obscuring the
womanhood beneath. A salty breeze caused silk streamers tied to
simple armlets to float behind her. As her pale hair took flight, she
reminded him of the fairies in the stories he read as a squire.





But this is no story, little brother, Borislav
whispered in his thoughts. You are no hero, and her no princess to be
rescued. You are a Dreadknight of the Uliusnela Empire, and you will
do your duty, though your soul burns for it.





"Khrys," Celine reveled in an exhausted
whisper. "You came for me. I knew you would." Fear-filled eyes
studied his armor. "I remember you praying to the Nameless One. I
thought He made you abandon me, but he gave you the power to save
me." Insignificant breasts heaved as if she ran for miles. Tears of
relief sprinted down an elongated face. "Can you cut these chains,
husband?"





The title cut him far more than her misguided
faith. I am not here to rescue you, my love, but to help you die. His
mind understood the importance of this mission, so why did his body
not obey? Why did no words flow from his lips? Would he break an
empire over a pair of eyes that shimmered like a sunset atop the sea?
Doubt froze him. Was this the only way?





"Husband?" the whisper seemed a scream from
atop the highest mountain, heard above the raucous horde screaming
for an execution, above the forceful whispers of his master
reverberating through his skull.





Quivering legs crossed the space between them and
the crowd silenced as a Dreadknight embraced a priestess. He resolved
to admit the truth, to kill his wife, for the world. "They sent me
to convince you to do your duty, for the empire. Not save you, my
wife." My soul is as black as this damned armor. Master was right.
The stories are never this cruel.





Celine's body stiffened at his touch, "You're
just like him," her dry throat rasped. "I prayed and prayed that
you would find me, but you're all alike." She spit in his face.
"Run and tell my father how he won. I hate him. I hate you." The
weeping began anew as her face turned away. "I hate you."





Hate is a mixture for disaster, little brother.
Without love in her heart, there can be no sacrifice. Borislav
murmured, pitiless as ever.





I've given you everything, Gurav thought with
rage, Marrinae was selfless. Celine is not.





Not everything, little brother. Not yet.





An answer coalesced through the fog of rage and
heartache. "So be it," he nodded to the svelte woman still
refusing to look at him. "I love you Celine." He severed the
chain binding her wrists with one blow. "I went through the fire
and darkness for you." A second cut released her ankles. " Now I
understand what is required." He turned about, facing the noonday
sun in perfect calm. "I will save your life and complete the ritual
with my own."





At last, the path appeared before him. Telepathic
words squabbled over his decision. He wished to sever the link, and
to his shock, it worked. So you can turn if off. How wondrous.





"Khrys," Celine's slender fingers massaged
his scalp. "I love-"





The wind raged against his face as a shadow
obscured the sun. A winged lizard the size of a nobleman's manor
raced across the sky before lunging toward the citadel's square.
Panic coursed through the screaming mob as citizens fled for shelter.
The beast landed before the platform, its metallic scales sparkling
like silver coins as translucent wings creased against a bulging
torso.





Khrys' awestruck gaze stared up at golden irises
pierced with serpentine eyes filled with wisdom. "The Old Gods."
Ancient knowledge coursed through his blood, giving him their ancient
name. "Dragon." A dignified murmur revealed a secret name.
"Vanlith, the Grey Wind."





Vanlith roared. Spittle and a century's old
stench streamed from a mouth rimmed with flesh-ripping teeth.
HATCHLING. Khrys dropped his sword, shocked as the beast shouted
through the link reserved for his brothers. IGNORANT HATCHLING.
OATHLESS. FALSIFYER.





"I offer myself-"





YOU WILL NOT, YOUNGLING. A silent voice, cold as
the grave, ancient and soft, overpowered the melody in Khrys' mind.
YOU ARE DREADLORD, DRAGONKIN. And Khrys knew this person, lived his
life with the first sip of the drought his master served that fateful
night- the unheralded hero, the Dreadbane, The Nameless One, the
emperor- still alive after all these centuries. YOU DRANK THE DRAGON
BLOOD. Hooded faces assaulted his senses from all sides, VANLITH WILL
NOT DEVOUR HIS OWN KIND. To the left, a hidden face admonished. YOU
CANNOT FULFILL THE OATH. To the right, a shadowed visage challenged.
YOU KNOW THIS. YOU SENSE THAT MY WORDS ARE TRUE. YOUR MOTIVES ARE
CHILDISH. Before him, unseen hands pulled back the cowl, revealing a
human face with dragon eyes. YOU WOULD BREAK A COVENANT THAT HAS
STOOD FOR A HUNDRED GENERATIONS? KILL THIS GIRL PRIEST BEFORE THE
DRAGON FEASTS UPON HER HATRED!





Khrys shook his head, confused, afraid, suddenly a
child back at that muddy village, an arrow through the gut, lifeblood
watering the ground, "No." The hoarse rebuttal seemed wrong in
his ears. "No!" Khrys raised his blade in two fists and charged
the dragon with a mighty leap from the platform.





FOOLISH HATCHLING. The drake seemed to relish the
challenge. THE PACT IS BROKEN. I WILL SET THE PRICE. With a speed
belying its bulk, the dragon whipped its mighty tail around and
smashed the air from Khrys' lungs, sending the Dreadknight
spiraling through the air and crashing into a balcony of a nearby
manor.





An eternity sprinted by as Khrys lay dying beneath
marble rubble as screams filled his ears and mingled with the stench
of death and burned flesh thick in the air as rising dust obscured
the sun. Something rapped his head. The knowledge of the universe at
your fingertips and you still think as a peasant. A shadow filled his
vision, Get up, little brother, the implacable Dread Lord commanded.
It takes more than pain to kill us. You know this. Unfriendly hands
pulled under his armpits as a pair of brothers hauled him to his
feet. Borislav waved an armored hand across the chaotic square. Look,
little brother. See what your foolishness has wrought.





Fire engulfed the square, burning men and
property. Citizens wailed like children. Maidens knelt with lost
hope, waiting for death. In the center of the chaos, the High
Priestess of Marrinae stood before Vanlith, an amber mist rising from
her body into the dragon's nostrils.





Borislav unfastened his sword. It feasts on her
hate. He stared at Khrys with a hint of expectation behind his gaze.





Hopelessness never seemed so deep a pit to the new
Dreadknight. He feared the answer, yet asked all the same. "What do
we do, master?"





Borislav shrugged impassionedly. Obey. Kill the
girl. Sever the link. Then appease our cousin while we find a willing
sacrifice.





All the destruction, the history, the logic could
not turn Khrys from the desire to save Celine. "We can kill
Vanlith."





Borislav's intense eyes stared into Khrys'. We
will not slay our cousin. To speak of such a blasphemy is heresy.





Unmoved, Khrys donned a conical cap and charged
the dragon, leaping over rubble, crashing through flames.





Vanlith raised a massive snout and roared in
exultation. YES. HOW YOU RESEMBLE THE ONE WHO FREED US SO LONG AGO.
COME, HATCHLING! Vanlith maneuvered around the priestess, inhaled and
unleashed a fountain of flame at the Dreadknight.





Khrys ignored the heat roasting him in his armor.
Borislav's advice proved true. The pain seemed superficial,
distant. He closed his eyes and raced deeper into the flames, sword
low, and ready to pierce. We both die here- cousin. He gloried as
obsidian pierced flesh. The scorching heat died. He opened burned
eyes and unleashed a horrified wail. Celine, blackened and smoky, lay
impaled upon his sword. Burnt lips seemed to smile. The stench of
Khrys' wife, resembling seared pork, sickened him. Blood streamed
down his blade and touched his gauntlet. The Dreadknight shrieked at
the heavens. She pitched forward into his arms. Weak legs buckled as
he knelt, weeping, howling. A shadow loomed over the couple as
Vanlith's huge muzzle blotted the sky. He inhaled and a sapphire
mist flowed from Celine's corpse. "Wha-?"





Vanlith's wings, half again as long as his body,
spread across the dilapidated square. THE OATH IS KEPT.





Understanding crashed upon him, bowing his
shoulders. She sacrificed herself, like the goddess, for him, for
love. The dragon promised to set the price. Understanding froze his
grief. They used him, everyone. The eunuch taunted him, his father in
law denied their love, Borislav changed him. Was it all for this
purpose? I will kill them all. Khrys removed the helm and tossed it
aside. He met the dragon's eyes. "I will kill you."





Vanlith's response, laced with humor, taunted
him, THEN COME, HATCHLING.





Hate strengthened wobbly knees. As Khrys rose, a
sharp pain pierced his heart. He stared down at an inky blade
protruding from his chest plate. A gauntleted hand forced him back to
his knees. A presence leaned toward his ear, "I warned you about
attacking our cousin, son." Borislav removed his weapon and sighed
as the light faded from Khrys' eyes, "A wicked business, this. I
hope I never see its like again."











THE END






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